Re: PRWTH in Lk 2:2

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Sep 25 1998 - 13:21:47 EDT

<x-flowed>At 11:15 PM -0500 9/25/98, wrote:
>Denny Diehl here with a question concerning
>PRWTH as used in Lk 2:2:
>usually translated: "This was the first census taken..."
>In Jn 15:18, PRWTON is translated "before". Is it possible
>to translate PRWTH in Lk 2:2 with "before" making it:
>"This was before the census taken..."?
>Or is it too awkward to translate it that way? Thank you.

Actually, although the adjectival forms PRWTH and PRWTON in both texts are
predicative, they are nevertheless used in somewhat different ways. Here
are the texts transcribed after the normal BG fashion:



One fact about PRWTOS/A/ON that is perhaps not adequately appreciated is
that it is a superlative ("foremost," "frontmost") form of an adjective
that has a comparative (PROTEROS/A/ON) but no simple positive form, since
the preposition PRO and the adverb PRIN normally function as a positive
form of the adjective would.

In fact, in Jn 15:18 PRWTON is used predicatively and construed with the
verb MEMISHKEN but with a comparative force that is complemented by the
ablatival genitive hUMWN: "hated me as one (hated) previous than (to) you"
= "hated me earlier than you."

Lk 2:2 is a bit different; although PRWTH is predicative and must be
construed closely with the verb EGENETO, "took place foremost" = "took
place for the first time." To be noted are: (1) there is no comparable
ablatival genitive functioning with PRWTH here as hUMWN functioned with
PRWTON in Jn 15:18; (2) since there is no article with PRWTH that would
clearly mark it as having attributive force and so belonging to APOGRAFH
(it would have to be either hAUTH hH PRWTH APOGRAFH or hAUTH hH APGRAFH hH
PRWTH), it cannot legitimately be understood as meaning "the first census"
but rather must be understood as meaning "took place as the first one."
Perhaps these sound like the mean the same thing in English, but the
difference in the Greek is important: it means that the census had NOT ever
taken place prior to the governorship of Quirinius.

There is another factor here that might conceivably be (and, I'm sure, has
indeed been suggested, since this verse is crucial in its indication of the
year 6 A.D. as the time of the census in question)--perhaps this is even
what you're suggesting in your query: that the genitive hHGEMONEUONTOS THS
SURIAS KURHNIOU should be understood as an ablatival genitive construed
with PRWTH, so that the verse might be understood to mean: "This census was
held before Quirinius was governor of Syria." While on the surface this
might seem plausible, it is so improbable in terms of ordinary idiom that
it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously: (1) Luke does regularly use the
genitive absolute construction with the name of an official to indicate the
year (Lk 3:1ff.); (2) the more normal sort of adverbial construction to
indicate that this census took place before the governorship of Quirinius
would, I think be something like PRIN hHGEMONEUSAI THS SURIAS
KURHNION--i.e. an aorist infinitive with an accusative subject following
upon PRIN; implicit in this, I think, is what seems to me obligatory to
understand as the implication of the present participle hHGEMONEUONTOS:
that the census took place WHILE QUIRINIUS WAS GOVERNING, not before it (or
after it either, for that matter).

In sum, I really don't see any way to construe the Greek so that PRWTH with
that genitive phrase including a present participle of the verb can point
to a census held prior to the governorship of Quirinius.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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